Dr. Ruby Dunlap’s Uganda Fulbright Blog
From March 15 through 18 we took our second safari, traveling west and south to Queen Elizabeth Game Park and then to the far southwest corner of Uganda where it meets Rwanda and Congo. The road between Kampala and Mityana was dirt and bone-jarring; it has been under construction for about seven years. From Mityana westward was a smooth, paved road, steadily climbing in elevation until we reached the lush tea and matooke plantations of Fort Portal. Beyond Fort Portal were the majestic Renzori Mountains, the Mountains of the Moon.
We descended into the Western Rift Valley south from Fort Portal, traveling with the Renzoris on our right and passing matooke-laden bicycles like this one. One could feel the heat increasing from the cool mountain air of Fort Portal to hot, dusty Kasese. Just south of Kasese, we stopped to take photos at the Equator and pass from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere.
Before we entered Queen Elizabeth Park, we visited a salt lake where people labor in hot, salty conditions to harvest blocks of black salt from a couple of volcanic lakes. The life is rigorous but must be rewarding enough for them to keep doing it.
We stayed at Mweya Lodge, popular with folks of European descent from three continents: Europe, North America and Australia. Weaver bird colonies surround it; some of them have learned to fly to tables in the outdoor eating area and help themselves to whatever they please. Here is one perched on Dad’s coffee creamer, getting ready to take a sip. Other creatures which regularly hang out at Mweya Lodge include a noisy tribe of mongooses and warthogs. Hippos come out at night and graze on the lawn. Bob got within 30 feet of one which ignored him and kept munching the lawn.
We had an early morning game drive and saw lots of water buffalo, Ugandan kobs (related to the impala but larger), and two prides of lions including one with cubs which were almost too far away to see. Unlike Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth has almost no large trees and consequently, no giraffes. But it has plenty of other animals such as hippos and warthogs. Zebras exist in two places in Uganda: a couple of small herds have been introduced west of Kampala and there are also some, we have been told, east on the border with Kenya. Ostriches also only live on the border with Kenya. We got glimpses of them as we headed back east on the 18th.
In the afternoon of our second day at Queen Elizabeth, we took a boat ride with other Mweya Lodge guests to see the scores of hippos, water buffalo, and elephants along the shores of the natural channel which connects Lake Edward with Lake George. Some rabid British birdwatchers with massive cameras and binoculars kept spotting special birds and sharing the news of their discoveries. It was almost as entertaining watching our fellow passengers as it was seeing another elephant. Birdwatching in Uganda is serious business with whole safaris devoted to nothing but birds.
As we left Queen Elizabeth Wednesday morning, we saw a group of four mother elephants with calves. Animals train their babies well; as soon as baby antelope or elephants are spotted, they move quickly behind their mothers or hide themselves in the brush. You can just see a bit of a small elephant behind this large one. We also saw a family group of the shy, hairy, giant forest hogs.
We had contemplated traveling south through Queen Elizabeth, all dirt road, but then decided to go by paved road to Kabale. It was a good decision; after steeply climbing up out of the rift valley into ranges of mountains which reminded me of the Smokies, our driver turned suddenly to cut across country onto a narrow, twisting dirt road which jolted and jerked us miserably for several hours. I got motion-sick and had the humiliating experience of having to ask our driver to pull over so I could throw up by the side of the road. Luckily, I had only the driver and family to witness this.
We finally hit paved road again and then on to Kabale, another bustling town with some mountains about it. But we were to get into mountains we hadn’t dreamed of, steeply sloped volcanic mountains and a road which made even Dad and Bob scared. The road between Kabale and Kisoro, the last major Ugandan town before one goes south to Rwanda or west to Congo, starts off smooth and paved but very winding with hairpin curves and switchbacks. And after about an hour of that, our driver abruptly turned onto a dirt road again. For awhile we were fine, thinking that we were almost there. But we started to climb again and then it got rougher and narrower. We passed through a bamboo forest and kept climbing until we could look down thousands of feet below with no guard rails to give one the illusion at least of safety.
Huge Ugandan touring buses and trucks roared past us both ways; I kept my eyes fixed straight ahead. Bob kept making comments which I will not repeat; even Dad said, “I think this is more than we bargained for.” The driver laughed: “I’ve been driving this road for thirty years and have never had an accident.” “There’s always a first time,” said Bob grimly. But after what seemed like an eternity, we finally descended into Kisoro, a wild West sort of mountain town circled by volcanic peaks.
We stayed at Traveler’s Rest, a vintage inn now owned and operated by some folks from the Netherlands. This inn was the staging place for many of the late Diane Fosse’s gorilla research; it is still one of the most popular staging place for gorilla and volcano climbing tourists. I regret not taking a photo of the walls of the inn which were covered with witch doctor masks everywhere one looked. That was a little spooky.
After checking in, our driver took me to visit a student in her home. She could hardly believe we had actually come that far to visit her but there we were. The director of nursing came by to visit as well as an American nurse from the West Coast who was there for a six week community health project. Our visit was an enjoyable one. She laughed about the road and said it was much improved from what it had used to be. The only ways into Kisoro are by a little plane which could use the airstrip on the edge of town or by that road.
Before dinner that evening, some local young people entertained us with traditional dances. While sitting there enjoying this, I felt pressure on my knee: a large, solemn Rottweiler had placed her head there and rolled her eyes up at me. Traveler’s Rest has two of them, brother and sister, who patrol the grounds. So we sat there companionably, enjoying the singing, drumming, and dancing.
We all agreed later that traveling that mountain road wasn’t as scary when you couldn’t see how far down the plunge might be were the vehicle to skid a little sideways. We left Kisoro at 6 am, reaching Kabale around 8:30. We stopped at Kabale for me to eat breakfast since I hadn’t dared put anything in my motionsickness prone stomach before the mountain ride. And then on east to Mbarara, the home of Mbarara University where several of my students earned their BSNs and where I’ve interacted as a thesis advisor with two of their graduate students.
Between Mbarara and Masaka, we saw a couple of small herds of zebras. Masaka, like Mbarara is a city of significant size and home to another student, a “tutor” at Masaka Comprehensive School of Nursing. We stopped to visit; he had around two hundred or so of his 265 students waiting for me to speak to them. We toured the school lab and other facilities; they do well with the resources they have although I find it hard to imagine managing 265 nursing students with only four full time instructors. Still, both students and the instructors were cheerful and enthusiastic without any visible sign of complaint or being harried.
They wanted to hear my story of becoming a nursing professor, as long and difficult a path as that mountain road. I encouraged them in life long learning, whatever that means for their environment. I also encouraged them to keep the patient center which means learning to communicate with other team members. When one of the students asked me what was the most important thing in research, I told them, “Guard your integrity in research. If you do not practice honesty and care with your research, your trustworthiness will be in doubt.”
It was somewhere between three and a half and four hours of hard driving between Masaka and Mukono. It is flat and hot–one crosses the equator again– with miles of papyrus swamps and Lake Victoria glittering in the distance to the south between Masaka and Kampala but Kampala’s hills and the even higher elevation of Mukono bring cooler temperatures as one travels east. We arrived soon after 7 pm but had been traveling with only short breaks and a slightly longer one at Masaka since 6 am that morning. But it was a good four days, seeing a great deal of the country and enjoying visits with the two students who have to travel the greatest distance to come to school.